There’s one defining moment in An American Carol that assures you this is a David Zucker film: a time-traveling interlude, witnessing a treaty to be signed by Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Hideki Tojo (credited only as “Tojo”), where the British shine the Axis’ boots and then breaks into a rousing rendition of Kumbaya. It’s so absurd you can’t help but burst into laughter, but it’s followed, shortly after, by a fat joke that equates not fighting war with being a pussy.
You could argue that the harsh word isn’t needed, but according to Zucker’s extraordinarily reactionary take, it is needed, ’less we become a nation of fat, documentarians who aspire to be red-blooded feature filmmakers. Or—wait, what?
Stripped of the fact that it was released during an election year, An American Carol would read as a comedy set in the same universe as Larry The Cable Guy, that brand of humor found in Witless Protection and Delta Farce: simple folk know what’s best and they don’t need fancy words or proof for it, no sir ree bob geeeet eeer donnne yes sur!! [sic to all of that, dear reader.]
Carol opens at a humble bar-be-que presided over by “Grandpa” (Leslie Nielsen) who sits at a table filled with all sorts of children—ginger, black, white, etc—and is begged to tell a story. He also flips a burger into a fat, black woman’s face. And his burgers taste like crap, eliciting many a “yuck!” face from the kids. But this is all integral to Zucker’s classic gag comedy and so we wait to see what happens. “Grandpa” (who is credited as “Leslie Nielsen himself” in the credits) tells the tale of Michael Malone (Kevin Farley)—a none-too-subtle nuclear strike against Michael Moore—as he finishes screening his latest documentary about how wonderful Cuban health care is while the rest of the people are suffering. Of course, his next plan is to abolish July 4th, but before all that, we’re introduced to a trio of terrorists (Robert Davi, Sedar Kalsin and Geoffrey Arend) who are struggling to find a proper way to bomb the hell out of democracy.
The first thing Zucker does is establish Malone as a fat, mindless and blind shlub. Which is perfectly fine, as his satire depends on caricature and stereotype, from Airplane mocking George Kennedy to Scary Movie proving that Wes Craven did indeed morph into a hack filmmaker. But here, the joke is relentless: Malone is never not eating/referencing how fat he is, from licking Twinkee filling off a flat-screen monitor to eating pizza that a rat has crawled over. But lo, as “Grandpa” Nielsen intones over the background, Malone has a nephew who is a—SHOCK—naval officer about to ship off on July 4th eve. And Malone just can’t fathom seeing his own nephew off to war, being against America and such. Why is he against it?
Because he went to film school.
No, really. He went to film school to make documentaries, thus making him a fat, pudgy loser who didn’t bother to enlist (no, I promise you, this is in the film) and then loses the “love of his life” to men who “wear uniforms.” But I’m glossing over the best gag: Malone, drunk on ice cream, is watching John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech when the former president suddenly stops and steps through his flat screen! He then intones that Malone doesn’t comprehend his speech, that he has to go beyond the usual “Ask not what you can do,” mythos and—OMG!—READ THE NEXT LINE. He then promises Malone that he will be visited by three spirits to help awaken his patriotism and end his asinine quest to abolish July 4th.
What follows are a series of gags involving Gen. George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer, who is actually amusing here) slapping the bejesus out of Malone while he showcases the fact that you can’t ever back down in a time of war, unless you’re a fucking communist pussy without a backbone. Because that’s what backing down means—or else, you’re British. One or the other, really.
Of course, this is all “just Screenwriting 101,” Zucker admits in an interview with House contributor (and cohort) Vadim Rizov at the Village Voice. And that’s the beauty of what Zucker used to do: he mocked the concept of genre. During Airplane, subjects that defined the times—Hare Krishna, sex jokes, actual crappy genre films—were points of interest to him. (Even the sequel expanded on the joke by taking place in space, when all genre product was heavily invested in science fiction.)
But An American Carol is something far less interesting. It offers a stark political contrast that presumes its audience will assume a caricature like Larry The Cable Guy to be factual and a basis for comparison. The juxtapositions that Zucker presents are often inane: Malone is criticized for not paying the health insurance or care for his nephew’s childrens’ operations, yet is then chided for being too broke to do so anyway. He’s forced to accept country music and the armed forces, but at the very end General Patton apologizes for making him even listen to country music—only, however, after he “came around.”
And, of course, there is a very trademark Zucker finish on those same children with the health problems (spoiler: they’re all thrown into the ocean, followed by their mother, after Malone swears to take care of them while his nephew is doing his civil duty. Intentional dark joke or subtle wink to the select few who even saw this film? You judge.)
To be fair, Zucker keeps his quirky sense of timing. There’s an unintentional joke about New York City subways in film—one that, sadly, flew over Zucker’s own head, but which remains the film’s best pun. Minor sequences work wonderfully, such as the ACLU represented as zombies with Dennis Hopper as a shotgun-toting judge who knows how to kill them; or John O’Hurley as a maître d’ who “once worked on Seinfeld” as the familiar bass line strums for an uncomfortable ten seconds. But then there are other gags that are just painful to witness, such as “slap=funny” or Bill O’Reilly being green-screened into a Port-a-Potty to smack Malone. There are parts where Carol works brilliantly, but in others, it’s clear to see why no one’s exactly beating down Zucker’s door. After all, there’s a fine line between satire and pathetically trying to pander to an audience based on a belief that even the director can’t fully get behind.
After I had seen it, Vadim asked me, “was this what Postal was like?”
“Sadly not,” I said. “At least, Uwe Boll knew how to make a film intended for an audience.”
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.